A new ritual on the American academic scene is the annual conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM). The PSM is an umbrella organization that connects various U.S. and Canadian groups; its yearly gathering offers an opportunity for the constituent elements to establish a visible presence on a prestigious university campus and plan strategy and tactics for a movement dedicated to delegitimizing the state of Israel. Over the last several years, the convocation has been held at Ohio State, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Berkeley. This past October, it was the turn of Duke University.
Duke’s president Richard Brodhead had only just assumed office last summer when the university announced that it would be hosting the PSM conference in the fall. Because the organizers had followed the proper procedures for mounting such an event, Brodhead explained, the decision to grant approval was an “easy one.” After all, the university was only reaffirming “the importance of the principle of free expression.”
But, easy or not, the decision immediately provoked criticism. Some of it came from Duke alumni and others off campus, and some of it came from a student group, the Duke Conservative Union. Altogether, some 90,000 signatures were gathered for an online petition denouncing the university’s move.
Among the targets of protest was the PSM’s fifth official “guiding principle,” which decrees the group’s refusal to denounce any terrorist act committed by Palestinians. Condemnation was also directed at the PSM’s amply documented history of anti-Semitism and incitement to violence. For example, one scheduled speaker, Charles Carlson, had openly called for lethal attacks against Israeli youth, declaring that “every young Israeli is military—they are all proper war targets,” and that “[e]ach wedding, Passover celebration, or bar mitzvah [in Israel] is a potential military target.”
Another scheduled participant, Abe Greenhouse, had been arrested in 2003 after smashing a pie in the face of Israeli minister Natan Sharansky as he was about to give a lecture at Rutgers. An organizer of the 2002 PSM gathering, Fadi Kiblawi, had written that the Palestinian plight made him “want to strap a bomb to [his] chest and kill those [Zionist] racists,” while an erstwhile PSM speaker, Hatem Bazian, had called for “an intifada in this country” (i.e., the U.S.) and asserted that the sacred texts of Islam require its adherents to “fight the Jews.” Prominently active in the movement was Sami al-Arian, who in 2003 was indicted on racketeering and terrorism charges and is currently awaiting trial in Florida.
These and other unequivocal statements and deeds of PSM activists were detailed in letters to the editor and in advertisements that the Duke Conservative Union placed in the Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper. In response, the university administration was largely silent. But Brodhead himself, moving beyond his previous stance of avowed neutrality in the name of free expression, issued what amounted to an outright endorsement of the conference. Decling to criticize any aspect of the PSM, he asserted only that a great deal of inaccurate information was circulating on the Internet and that the “deepest principle involved [in hosting the conference] is not even the principle of free speech. It’s the principle of education through dialogue.” How this “dialogue” would proceed under the PSM’s practice of prohibiting recording devices and reporters from many of its sessions was never made clear.
Following a month or so of debate on and around the Duke campus, the conference itself opened on October 15. Its hundreds of participants were treated to a series of lectures, panel discussions, and workshops. There was also a variety of “cultural events,” including a sing-in and a reading of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel poetry. Affiliated groups like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and Jews for a Just Peace set up tables at which they distributed leaflets and sold such wares as “Free Palestine” T-shirts.
One keynote speech of the PSM’s exercise in “education through dialogue” was delivered by Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale professor of genetics, who presented a short history of what he portrayed as the virulent Zionist “disease.” There was also a lecture by the PLO legal adviser Diana Buttu, a polished speaker whose theme was that Palestinians under Israeli occupation have suffered a fate worse than blacks under apartheid in South Africa, and that Israel is today “the greatest abuser of human rights” in the world. Nasser Abufarha, a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, spoke of Israel’s “racist ambitions” and defended the terrorist activities of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in combating Zionist “aggression.” Brian Avery, an activist for ISM, explained that both George W. Bush and John Kerry were “on auction to the Jewish lobby.”
Although the Duke administration stoutly maintained both before and during the conference that the PSM and ISM were “distinct and separate” organizations, at least a dozen ISM activists led conference workshops. The ISM specializes in sending European and American students to the West Bank and Gaza to work on behalf of the radical Palestinian cause. The group’s co-founder, George Rishmawi, has candidly explained its purpose in recruiting these foreign students: “When Palestinians get shot by Israeli soldiers, no one is interested anymore. But if some of these foreign volunteers get shot or even killed, then the international media will sit up and take notice.” That was certainly the case with the ISM activist Rachel Corrie, a twenty-three-year-old student at Evergreen State College who was accidentally killed in 2003 while attempting to block Israeli bulldozers from uncovering terrorist smuggling tunnels in Gaza.
One of the two ISM-led workshops at the Duke conference was “Volunteering in Palestine: Role and Value of International Activists.” A last-minute addition to the schedule, the workshop was conducted by ISM co-founder Huweida Arraf. Acknowledging during her talk that the ISM cooperates with the terror organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Arraf encouraged students to join the group and instructed them on how to enter Israel surreptitiously and how to deal with possible arrest and deportation. The Duke administration never commented publicly on the inclusion in the PSM’s program of a workshop recruiting for a group with self-professed ties to terrorists and an openly avowed interest in generating casualties.
Another, less practical workshop—“Segregation, Apartheid, and Zionism Are Crimes Against Humanity!”—was led by Bob Brown, a veteran of the Black Power movement of the 1960’s. Brown’s theoretical discourse consisted mostly of unsubstantiated personal anecdotes and random invective. Thus, he reminisced about meeting Saddam Hussein’s spokesman Tariq Aziz in Baghdad in 1974; alleged that Condoleezza Rice’s father had tried to force him to marry her some years back; and referred to the Six-Day war, in which Israel fought off the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, as “the Jew war of ’67.”
Still other sessions were devoted to such subjects as “Jewish dissent,” the ethics of suicide bombing and kindred forms of “resistance,” and miscellaneous other topics. Charles Carlson’s workshop, “The Cause of the Conflict: How Judaized-Christians Enable War,” was inexplicably cancelled.
After three days of meetings, the conference came to a close. “It’s a good thing we did here,” announced the university’s vice president for public affairs, John Burness, setting the tone for a chorus of self-applause. In its own post-mortem roundup, the student-run Chronicle, which had endorsed the PSM’s official refusal to denounce Palestinian terrorism, lauded the university administration for “masterfully” handling the affair and reported with great satisfaction that the “overall tone of the weekend was one of discussion and learning.” Looking to the future, the paper urged upon Duke a positive responsibility “to continue the dialogue the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference initiated.”
And indeed the close of the conference did not mark the end of Duke’s experiment in “discussion and learning.” To appreciate what happened next, it helps to know that, unlike the Duke Conservative Union, the university’s two Jewish organizations, the campus Hillel (known as the Freeman Center) and a student group called Duke Friends of Israel, had opted from the beginning to refrain from criticizing the university for agreeing to host the conference. In fact, in a demonstration of their own commitment to free expression, the groups publicly praised the decision. At the same time, and in the same spirit, they formulated a “Joint Israel Initiative.” This was a resolution pledging that both they and the PSM would conduct a civil dialogue, would together condemn the murder of innocent civilians, and would work toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the eve of the conference, the Jewish groups also staged a “rally against terror.”
But whatever hopes the Jewish campus organizations held out for civil dialogue were rapidly dashed. Representatives of the PSM refused to sign the Joint Israel Initiative, objecting in particular to its condemnation of violence. Not only that, but in the aftermath of the conference, even as the open anti-Semitism on display there was going entirely without censure, Duke’s Jewish organizations themselves—and Jews in general—became the object of furious attack.
The first salvo was an article in the Chronicle by one of its columnists, a Duke senior named Philip Kurian. Headlined “The Jews,” it denounced Jews as “the most privileged ‘minority’ group” in the United States and in particular bemoaned the “shocking overrepresentation” of Jews in academia. Replete with references to the “powerful Jewish establishment” and “exorbitant Jewish privilege in the United States,” the article went on to characterize Jews as a phony minority that can “renounce their difference by taking off the yarmulke.”
Kurian’s column was followed by an even more intense anti-Semitic outpouring on the Chronicle‘s electronic discussion boards. “I am glad you have the courage to stand up to the Jews,” wrote one correspondent. Another said he “was thrilled to read Mr. Kurian’s belligerent critique of that long-nosed creature sitting squarely in the middle of the room that nobody is allowed to talk about. Yes—that elephant Mr. Sharon . . . and his treasonous cousins in America.” One posting, besides providing a link to an online article blaming the Jews for the outbreak of World War II, called for “an investigation into the Jewish community’s practices and leadership during the past 150 years.” “Whenever anyone says anything negative about the Jews,” expostulated still another writer, “they go after them with Mafia-style ruthlessness. . . . This is the reason Jews are the most hated people on earth and why they have always been kicked out of every country.”
Having welcomed known anti-Semitic agitators onto its campus, how did the Duke administration react when the after-effects of the agitation began to play themselves out before its eyes? Responding to Kurian’s article in a letter to the Chronicle, President Brodhead first condemned the “virulence” of some of the PSM’s critics. He then pronounced himself “deeply troubled” by Kurian’s sentiments, while offering assurances that Kurian “probably did not mean to . . . [revive] stereotypical images that have played a long-running role in the history of anti-Semitism.” Reverting to his by now standard mantra, Brodhead stressed again that the central issue was the importance of “education through dialogue.” “I am grateful,” he wrote, “to the many individuals and groups who helped turn last week’s Palestine Solidarity Movement conference into a peaceful and constructive event,” and “proud to be at a school where difficult matters are dealt with in such a mature and constructive way.”
It is all but impossible to imagine the president of Duke offering a similar encomium to, say, a conference of neo-Nazi rabble-rousers on his campus, or defending a parade of speakers dilating on the “diseased” history of, say, American blacks. It is in fact impossible to imagine Duke agreeing to host such debased goings-on in the first place. In that sense, the administration’s appeals to free expression and dialogue were the purest disingenuousness.
Moreover, and whether or not a university has a duty to license the unfettered expression on its campus of every venomous notion under the sun, the real issue at Duke was always the refusal of the licensing authorities to call such notions by their proper names—in this case, bald anti-Semitism and incitement to the murder of innocents. That refusal on the part of the university and its president, a mark not of “constructive” liberality but of cowardice and complicity, is what led infallibly to the post-conference outbreak of anti-Jewish hatred. Once the guardians of the citadel granted permission to open the gates, is it any surprise that the marauding hordes came storming through?